Champagne 1: Champagne’s Ancient Origins

(Last Updated On: December 30, 2014)

Brut Rosé Tasting Champagne Toast The Print Shop 2 200pxScience Fact: Champagne and its bubbly cousins make a festive way to great the New Year. Today’s post discusses the ancient origins of Champagne, back in the Stone Age, no less. Tomorrow we’ll enjoy a comparative tasting of brut rosé, that cheerful pink sparkling wine.

If you read this blog regularly you’ve already figured out that wine is one of the things that I enjoy. Five previous blogs on this site featured wine: Taste Bias & the $90 WineSensory Evaluation 1 (Wine): Measuring the IndescribableWine Tasting – New from New YorkerCoffee, Booze & Other Health Food and Holiday Diet: Slim While You Stuff. But we’ve never talked about the bubblies before!

To see where sparkling wines, and Champagne in particular, came from we need to reach back into history. Since “victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” many would like to take credit for the wonderful success of Champagne as a beverage. I will assemble conflicting claims as best I can to bring us quickly from the primitive beginnings to the present day.

The Birth of Wine

The origin of Champagne-like wines traces back to the earliest fermented beverages. Our best source for those is Dr Pat McGovern, whose official title is Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Less formally, he is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.”

Dr Pat has been searching out the origins of wines and ales all over the world. To date the oldest fermented beverage he has discovered comes from the Stone Age, in China, some 9,000 years ago. This early mixed drink appears to be a wine made from rice, honey and a fruit, probably a hawthorn or a wild grape.

Modern wine, based on fermentation of grape juice, is almost as old, dating from 8,000 years ago in Shulaveri, Georgia. Shulaveri, known as Shaumiani since 1925, is a hilltop town 40 km south of Tbilisi and 10 km north of the Armenian border. It has a few thousand residents, mostly Armenians. The people who lived in this area made red wine from grape juice, bottled it in ceramic storage jars, and added tree resin as a preservative, creating a wine probably similar to the modern Greek wine retsina.

Alcohol as Yeast Poop

Yeasts are single-celled organisms that are classed in the kingdom Fungi. Thus they are related to molds and mushrooms. Yeasts live by consuming carbohydrates, including sugars, and they convert these to ethanol and carbon dioxide gas. In other words, when we enjoy a cocktail, we are drinking yeast poop. Ugh.

Yeasts occur naturally wherever sugars are present, such as on the skins of grapes and other fruits. If early humans mashed grapes for juice, the juice would have contained yeasts from the grape skins. If leftover juice was sitting around for a few days, the yeasts would have been working away producing alcohol and voilà! Wine!

Bubblies of Antiquity

Although the essential ingredient for an alcoholic drink is ethanol, carbon dioxide is produced by the yeast at the same time. This is seen in the wine as effervescence, or bubbles. Most early winemakers regarded the bubbles as a fault and tried to eliminate them; however, a few chose to enhance the bubbles by adding additional sugar which would undergo a “secondary fermentation.”

The ancient Romans apparently believed that the daily consumption of wine was a necessity for health, a sentiment with which many modern wine lovers would agree. A research paper published in 2000 also credits the Romans with intentionally producing sparkling wines. Prof Mario Fregoni of the Institute of Viticulture, Catholic University of Piacenza, studied 2000-year-old writings by Virgil, Properzio, Lucan and Columella. He found references to a number of styles of sparkling wine, including the use of secondary fermentation.

The Brit Connection

The wines of the Champagne district of France were known to show a slight bubbling, although their winemakers considered it a fault because the cause of the bubbles was not yet understood. The Champagne region is located in northeastern France, not very near the moderating influence of the sea. It gets chilly in the winter, with the average low temperature at night dipping below freezing. At these temperatures, wine yeasts become dormant and the fermentation process is arrested. If the must has a high sugar content to begin with, there may be residual sugar and yeast present when the wine goes to sleep in the cold.

In the 17th century, French vintners sold the English wooden barrels filled with wine. The barrels were appropriate for shipment across the Channel, since they were stronger than the relatively fragile glass bottles of that age. The British merchants would then decant the wine into glass bottles and seal them with corks for retail sale.

The bottles of wine warmed up from their French winter, the yeast awoke and the fermentation process resumed. Since the bottle was sealed, the carbon dioxide could not escape and the result was a bubbly beverage, which had not been intended by the winemaker.

The Brits rather liked the sparkling wine that resulted, and came to associate it with the Champagne district of France. The English physician and scientist Christopher Merret studied the wines, and he showed in 1662 that excess sugar was the source of the carbonation. He explained a process by which any wine could be made sparkling by adding additional sugar before bottling, an approach presently known as “méthode champenoise” or méthode traditionnelle.

Champagne – The Grande Dame

Although the French did not single-handedly invent the Champagne that we now know, they made significant improvements in the quality and production processes of many wines. In 1668 the monk Dom Pérignon became cellarer (cellar master) at the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the Champagne region. He became highly respected for expanding its vineyards and guiding its wine production. More than a hundred years after his death, one of his successors rewrote history to paint Pérignon as the sole inventor of Champagne, which by that time was enjoying rapidly increasing popularity across Europe and the British Isles.

Champagne’s Disrespected Cousins

Although some U.S. winemakers label their sparkling wines “champagne,” in Europe that designation can only be applied to wines from the Champagne region of France. Other bubblies are produced in France, specifically crémant (which is also a restricted appellation) and more generically, mousseux.

Other countries and languages have their own terms for sparkling wines, which may or may not resemble the wines from Champagne, France:
Cava in Spain
Espumante in Portugal
Prosecco in Italy, which may be either fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante)
Sekt in Germany
Pezsgő in Hungary
Sovetskoye Shampanskoye in former Soviet countries such as Armenia, Belarus Moldova, Russia and Ukraine

Ah, but you may say, there is too broad a choice. Are these attractive beverages to imbibe? And if so, how do I choose which one?

Watch for tomorrow’s blog, in which we touch on the merits of these quaffs and then conduct a tasting of pink bubblies, specifically the one called brut rosé.

You might sip Champagne or another bubbly for a wedding toast, but faced with all the choices on the shelf, would you choose to drink a sparkling wine for pleasure?

Image Credit: “Champagne Toast” from The Print Shop 2 Collection. Not for download or reuse.

Comments

Champagne 1: Champagne’s Ancient Origins — 3 Comments

  1. Good subject since I have always considered that the French are experts on making the most of something which is perhaps not especially better than a number of other similar products in the market and then charging hugely for the heritage, the provenance , the terroir or whatever can be hyped up with marketing flair. Well perhaps this is an unfair generalisation but not in the case of champagne. I discovered Blanquette de Limoux a couple or more decades ago and although not quite the same as champagne, it is pretty consistent in quality and can be preferable to some of the less well established products of champagne. Better still it is cheaper by far, well inexpensive is the more elegant adjective, at about 4.50 euros per bottle minimum up to about 7. We drive at least once a year to Calais on a cheap day return via the shuttle and then stock up with as much blanquette as is possible to the extent that out VW estate was grounding on twisty roads last time round on the way back. If it is for one’s own consumption it is duty free.

    Further more it was established in Limoux apparently in 1531 by the Benedictine monks of St. Hilaire, presumably before champagne went into production by a rival monastery fraternity up North. Perhaps champagne did so well because it was up North and far closer and more accessible to the wealthy English Milords who developed a taste for it and then began to import increasing quantities once the industrial revolution got under way, but always Brut and never demi sec. When offered an aperitif in rural France especially in the South, the wine offered will often be very sweet, a muscat perhaps, and I suspect the demand for champagne to be brut, that now seems to predominate, derives from the Brits. Again Champagne did not export well until English Glass makers manufactured a bottle strong enough to withstand the pressure of the secondary fermentation process.

    I do not know how much demand there is in the USA for Prosecco, the Italian equivalent, but it has grown increasingly popular over the last half dozen years in the UK and a respectable bottle can be picked up for about £7 compared to the absolute minimum of £10 if you are very lucky, and usually closer to £20, for champagne. Champagne is wonderful but really it is well over priced and the classified champagne district has been quietly enlarged in recent years for obvious reasons.

    • Thanks for your comments, Nick, and for your bubbly recommendation!
      There is an increasing interest in Prosecco in the US, which is very good for Bellinis and similar champagne cocktails.
      Your point about the glass bottles is well taken. There are some fascinating tales in Wikipedia about the cellar workers wearing welder-type steel masks to protect themselves from exploding champagne bottles. One bottle would fail, setting off a dangerous chain reaction that could consume a substantial fraction of the winery’s output. That is perhaps one reason that Dom Perignon was assigned by the abbot to try to eliminate carbonation from the Champagne wines. It was not until various royals popularized bubbly that the carbonation suddenly became a desirable quality.

    • Nick, I also meant to say: I love the image of your giant car, crammed with bottles of bubbly, scraping the ground as you coax it back to the border. And then you, earnestly explaining to H.M.Customs, that this rolling warehouse of wine is, yes, meant for your personal consumption. [Wiry bloke in uniform, narrowing his eyes: “Mr Greaves, sir, y’don’t mean to say you’re goin’ to drink all this?”] BTW, your thoughtful post came through twice which I assume is some glitch in the digits, so I deleted the duplicate. À votre santé!